In the years since she died, it seems like Latasha Harlins has been largely forgotten. When she is actually mentioned, in the media, the focus is on how she died. The documentary short, A Love Song for Latasha, chooses to look at her life as a whole and not just the horrible circumstances surrounding her death.
Latasha was a young black girl growing up in South Central LA. Early on she faced hardship when her mother was murdered, but she kept going. She took care of her younger siblings and looked out for her friends. She was also a good student who dreamed of being a lawyer and a business owner. She wanted to give back to her community and help other children. But at 15 years old, she was murdered by a convenience store owner who wrongfully accused her of stealing and shot her. All for a $1.79 bottle of orange juice.
The documentary tells us about Latasha through her loved ones. Her cousin and best friend talk about how special she was and speculate about who she could have grown up to become. We also hear Latasha’s own words in a heartfelt essay. Director Sophia Nahli Allison intertwines this with beautiful images of black girls. They all could have been Latasha. They’re shown as proud queens, the way they should be depicted in the media. Allison uses this imagery instead of showing the widespread video footage of Latasha’s murder. It makes the film much more impactful. She gives life and light to Latasha’s story, making sure that she will always be remembered.
Soleil Moon Frye carried her video camera everywhere she went when she was a teenager in the 90s. From wild parties to mundane trips to the mall. Then she locked those videotapes away and never looked back. Twenty-something years later, she has opened her vault of recorded memories and made the documentary kid90.
Frye rose to fame as a child on the 80s sitcom Punky Brewster. Everyone loved the character and the precocious little girl who played her. When the show ended, she continued to work in the business while having a semi-normal teen life. By this time, she had befriended other young actors like Brian Austin Green, Stephen Dorff, and Mark-Paul Gosselaar. They grew up together in LA and she was there to film it all.
In kid90, Frye looks back at this footage and checks in with her younger self. She questions whether or not what she remembers happening actually occurred. She finds that she did have a pretty happy childhood. Her family was loving and caring. Plus, she had a supportive group of friends. There were dark times though. Frye’s breasts developed very early, leading to unwanted attention and harassment from older men. In the documentary, we see her going in for breast reduction surgery. She also had to contend with sexual assault. These events shaped her physically and emotionally.
The film also gets into life as a child star. Frye’s post-Punky career didn’t take off in the way she would have hoped, but she accepted this and moved past it. Unfortunately, many of her friends weren’t able to survive similar challenges. Actor Jonathan Brandis, who also became famous at a young age, is featured in the film. He seems happy and Frye only has fond memories of him. This is where perceptions of the past can differ from what was actually going on. Frye wasn’t seeing the whole picture. After his career failed, Brandis killed himself. Frye wonders how she could have missed the pain her friend was going through. Not everything showed up on camera it seems.
In the 90s, social media didn’t exist and people weren’t self-documenting like they do today. Frye was ahead of the curve. She knew she had a story to share someday. Also, without the threat of having their personal business put online, she was able to capture her friends unguarded. As a fellow 90s kid, it’s interesting to see these actors that I followed in a more private real setting. Frye does a great job of assembling it all and taking the audience down a fun and sometimes complex nostalgia trip.
The US government’s persecution of prominent members of the black community has been a recurring theme this Oscar season. MLK/FBI details the harassment and surveillance of Martin Luther King Jr. Judas and the Black Messiah follows an informant who infiltrates the Black Panthers in order to take down Fred Hampton. And now, The United States vs. Billie Holiday focuses on the FBI’s attacks on the legendary singer. They targeted Holiday (Andra Day) because of her song “Strange Fruit”, which tells the story of the lynching of Black men and women in the South. The FBI claimed the song would incite riots. They were actually worried about it inspiring a burgeoning civil rights movement and threatening their way of life. White life.
US vs. Billie Holiday covers her story from the 1940s to the 1950s. By this time she is an established star touring the country. She also has a huge drug problem that threatens to derail her career. Jimmy Fletcher (Trevante Rhodes) comes onto the scene at this time. He’s claims to be a journalist, but is actually a Federal narcotics agent. The head of the division, Harry Anslinger (Garrett Hedlund), knows about Holiday’s drug issues. If he can take her down with that she won’t be able to perform “Strange Fruit”. Thanks to Fletcher’s betrayal, Holiday is sent to prison. Oddly enough, when she gets out, she accepts him back into her life and they begin a relationship. But he’s still being used by Anslinger to get to her, a role that Fletcher begins to rebel against.
Director Lee Daniels has a lot to juggle with this film. It’s part biopic, romance, and historical drama. As a result Holiday’s story often feels disjointed, like Daniels is jumping around from moment to moment in an attempt to capture everything. Also, the sudden tonal and visual shifts are distracting. It’s a very interesting piece, but it could have been more cohesive. Day, on the other hand, often exceeds the movie she’s in. She truly embodies Holiday from the start, going beyond a simple imitation. Plus, her performances in the musical numbers are captivating. It’s an incredible debut that is deserving of the Oscar talk.
Russell T. Davies’ It’s A Sin centers on a group of young friends contending with the AIDS epidemic in 1980s England. Ritchie (Olly Alexander) has left his family, whom he is not out to yet, on the Isle of Wight to explore his sexuality in London. He meets Jill (Lydia West) at Uni, where they share a passion for performing. Jill introduces Ritchie to the studious handsome Ash (Nathaniel Curtis). Along the way they meet Roscoe (Omari Douglas) who has run away from his overly religious Nigerian family. Rounding out the group is shy sweet Colin (Cullum Scott Howells), a Welsh tailor. The friends rent a large flat where they throw wild parties, entertain a revolving door of sexual partners, and enjoy a genuinely happy life together. As a viewer you quickly grow to care about these characters. That makes it difficult to watch as the shadow of AIDS falls over them.
In the early days, there was a lot of hearsay and misinformation about the disease. News outlets weren’t covering it and doctors weren’t informing their patients. Plus, in England, it was considered to be an American disease since it seemed to originate there. It makes sense that in an age without the internet, information wouldn’t be able to get out easily. Most films or TV show about the beginning of AIDS only focus on how people in the US dealt with it. I found this UK perspective to be very interesting. I was also surprised about the denial. Ritchie claims the disease is a hoax and there couldn’t be a “gay cancer”. He is soon proven wrong.
Davies does a great job of balancing the harsh reality of the era with five coming of age stories. You see these characters trying to figure out who they are and what they want out of life. In some cases, a brief life. Ritchie and Jill strive to become actors, Colin desperately wants someone to love, and Roscoe has a secret affair with a politician. Ash doesn’t have much of a storyline though. He should have been given more to do. On the flip side, I could have done with less of Ritchie. Yes, he’s the main character, but he’s also incredibly self-absorbed and infuriating. It made him hard to root for at times. Another complaint is that Jill is often reduced to the role of the supportive caretaker for the guys. She doesn’t have much of a personal life and never has a love interest. She deserved more development.
Despite these faults, Sin is a well-done series. The writing and direction are sharp and all of the actors are perfectly cast. There’s also a soundtrack full of 80s gems that enhance each episode. It’s a beautifully heartfelt show about a tragic period in history.
You never know what hidden “gems” you’ll find while scrolling through Hulu. The other night I stumbled upon a movie I’d never heard of before, The JanuaryMan. I see now why it was hidden since 1989.
It’s hard to describe TJM mainly because it doesn’t know what it wants to be. In the course of 97 minutes, which feels much longer, it goes from a thriller, to a romantic comedy, to a serious drama, to a farce, and around again. It’s whiplash-inducing. The gist is a serial killer is strangling women in NYC and the mayor (Rod Steiger) orders the police commissioner (Harvey Keitel) to do something about it. Since the mayor’s daughter (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) was friends with the most recent victim, he’s invested in the case. The police commissioner implores his retired cop brother (Kevin Kline) to rejoin the force and catch the killer. Because he’s the only one who can?? Mmmk. He agrees to help, but there’s tension because his brother is now married to his former girlfriend (Susan Sarandon). A lot of time is spent on this dopey triangle where nobody is worth rooting for. Then it becomes a weak quadrangle when the cop starts seeing the mayor’s daughter. With all this extra fluff, you could almost forget a serial killer is running around the city. Perhaps the screenwriter did too.
If the film had stuck with one genre or tone it could have been decent. But instead it got turned into a confusing mess and the audience is forced to slog through it. Not even a cast full of Oscar winners/nominees can elevate this script. They’re just as lost as us, which makes for some conflicting acting styles. Someone really should have told Steiger to dial it down a notch. He’s acting with a capital A in a very B-level film.
I’m trying to think of one redeeming quality for this movie…Alan Rickman. He plays the cop’s eccentric artist friend who gets roped into helping him nab the killer. Rickman is fun to watch whenever he’s onscreen. The movie doesn’t deserve him.
In his latest film, Uncle Frank, writer/director Alan Ball explores issues with family, identity, and acceptance. The story, set in the 70s, focuses on Beth (Sophia Lillis), a bright young girl growing up in a small town in South Carolina. She doesn’t feel like anyone in her family understands her with the exception of her Uncle Frank (Paul Bettany). He is a smart witty college professor who encourages her to choose her own path and get out of the South. Years later, Beth takes Frank’s advice and enrolls in New York University, where he also teaches. She discoverers that her uncle is gay and lives with his partner, Wally (Peter Macdissi, Ball’s real-life husband). Frank has kept his sexuality hidden from his family for decades. Before Beth can digest this new information, they learn that Daddy Mac, her grandpa/Frank’s father has passed away. Frank is reluctant to return home for the funeral because he and his father had a contentious relationship. But Beth and Wally convince him to go. On the trip back home, secrets are unearthed and demons come back to haunt Frank.
Family dramas are Ball’s strong suit. Just like with his series, Six Feet Under, he creates an interesting clan here. At the forefront is Bettany’s compelling performance. Frank’s defiance and strength hide a lot of hurt. That pain comes to the surface in several well-acted scenes where Frank has to face his past. On the flip side, Macdissi delivers comic relief with Wally. But he also shows a lot of depth underneath the humor. Lillis is a great new talent. Her character comes of age before our eyes, growing from a timid teenager to a confident young woman. The rest of Frank’s family is filled in with fantastic supporting actors like Steve Zahn, Margo Martindale, and Judy Greer.
Ball loosely based Uncle Frank on his own experience with his father, who was closeted. He continually hits home the message of being true to yourself. Moreover, despite how smothering family can be and how you feel like you need to run away from them, once you return home you may realize that you actually do belong and this is where you’re supposed to be.
The Boys in the Band has gone from a play to a film to a revival of the play and finally to a screen version of the revival. It really has come full circle. The recent iteration came out on Netflix this week, fifty years after the original movie debuted. I was eagerly awaiting its release and I have to say that I enjoyed it as much as its predecessor.
Gay, Gay, Gay
The Netflix movie employs the exact same cast from the stage play. Having seen the play, I’m glad everyone was able to reprise their roles. They’re an extremely talented group. What’s also noteworthy is that all nine actors are openly gay. Back in 1970, some of the actors were gay, but nobody was out. It would have been career suicide. As it was, all nine actors, found it hard to find work after playing gay on screen. So, decades later to have actors who can be both open about their lives and still have thriving careers is incredible. Coming along on the journey was the late screenwriter Mart Crowley, who wrote the original play and movie. He was assisted by Ned Martel this time. Plus, Ryan Murphy and Joe Mantello acted as the producer and director, respectively, on the revival and the movie. Both are out. Overall, this project was pretty damn gay. As it should be.
Because the movie is so insular, chemistry between the actors is very important. They all have it and work very well with each other. Jim Parsons (Michael) and Zachary Quinto (Harold) do a particularly great job of playing off one another. Their characters are the best of friends and the worst of enemies. A kind gesture can quickly turn into an evisceration. Finding that fine line between love and hate takes skill. Similarly, Andrew Rannells (Larry) and Tuc Watkins (Hank) play a battling couple. They’re supposed to be lovers, but they can’t stop fighting. Conveying that love with all the underlying tension and strife comes easily though. It’s also sweet to know that Watkins and Rannells fell in love, in real life, while making the revival.
Cowboy, Donald, Alan
The script for the remake stays close to the original, but there were certain additions. I noticed that the Cowboy (Charlie Carver) had a few more lines. This made it so that he was more self-aware as opposed to how stupid he comes off in the original. It seems like Donald (Matt Bomer) was fleshed out too. I think Bomer’s expressiveness added to the character. He says so much with that handsome face. On the flip side, I’m happy that they didn’t add much to Alan (Brian Hutchison). It has always been a big question about whether or not he was gay. Crowley could have updated his work and made that clearer. But I think it was better to keep it ambiguous and let the viewers draw their own conclusions.
As I’ve said before, Michael’s NYC apartment in the original movie is one of my favorite sets in cinematic history. I wanted to move in and live in that world. The Netflix version is equally admirable. A spiral staircase, the huge living room, and beautiful rooftop space. Amazing. But this time the set was deliberately made to look a little run down, which was smart. It made it seem more lived in. Plus, Michael could never afford to fix it up. He spent all of his money on sweaters.
Outside the party
Aside from the opening montage of the characters out in the city, the original contained the action to Michael’s apartment. This added to the play-like feeling when you watched it. This go around Mantello takes the audience outside the party. As they’re playing the brutal telephone game, Bernard (Michael Benjamin Washington) and Emory (Robin de Jesus) flashback to their past loves. In Bernard’s case you see the dreamlike night where he swam naked with a rich white boy. With Emory, you experience the humiliation he felt at a school dance after everyone finds out he confessed his feelings to his crush. Each flashback gives you the chance to understand and connect with these characters, moreso than the original allowed. On that note, after Michael’s last line, when the story normally ends, you see all of the characters and how they’re coping after that intense party. It gives the audience another chance to check in on them.
The more things change…
Despite some changes, the remake retains the essence of the original. I had a friend who asked if this version had the same self-loathing and bitchiness. I said, yes, and that’s the point. This is a look back at a time when gay men couldn’t be out or even legally gather together. They were made to hate themselves and some lashed out internally or externally. Shame can be dangerous. The 2020 version doesn’t shy away from that. But then there are the lighter moments. I found myself laughing at the same jokes I’ve heard many times before or delighting in the dance number at the party. The highs and lows make the story interesting and relatable. For that reason, The Boys in the Band, however it’s presented, will always be worth seeing.
Before watching the documentary Killing Patient Zero, I knew very little about Gaetan Dugas. It turns out he was a loving son, brother, and friend. He enjoyed his job as a flight attendant for Air Canada. He was also openly gay and completely unashamed of his life. The one thing I thought I knew about Gaetan was completely wrong: he was not the man who inflicted AIDS upon the world.
At the beginning of the epidemic, doctors were desperate to figure out how this “gay cancer” was being spread. They theorized that sex was the cause and began to interview a sampling of gay men about their sexual history. Gaetan was one of these patients who generously cooperated with the CDC. Doctors produced a cluster study that featured him, amongst others, showing how the disease had traveled through sexual partners. Later, Gaetan was mistakenly labeled as “patient zero”, as if AIDS had originated with him. Reporter Randy Shilts latched onto this false story when he was doing research for his novel And the Band Played On. He took it a step further by writing that Gaetan had knowingly passed on the disease to the men he slept with. Once Shilts’ book was published, Gaetan, who had died by then, was put in the spotlight and his reputation was savaged.
Director/writer Laurie Lynd attempts to repair this damage in her documentary. Through interviews with healthcare professionals who were on the frontlines, he dispels the myth of a patient zero. They confirm that Gaetan was not the originator of AIDS. His friends talk about the warm caring man they knew. Someone who would not have purposely spread a disease. There’s even archival footage from a town hall meeting about AIDS featuring an outspoken Gaetan. The short video offers a much more accurate portrayal of him than Shilts’ book ever could.
I finished Zero feeling informed about the subject and also angry on his behalf. It’s horrible how this man was vilified by the public. I hope that more people will see the film and get an understanding of Gaetan’s true character. He and his loved ones deserve that vindication.
D’Arcy Drollinger wears many hats (and wigs) in her new movie Shit & Champagne. The drag icon stars in, writes, and directs the action comedy based on her stage play of the same name. Set in 1970s San Francisco, the film centers on Champagne Horowitz Jones Dickerson White (so she’s been married a few times, it’s none of your fucking business!) a foxy stripper caught up in a tangled plot. She witnesses her boyfriend Rod’s murder at the hands of two hired goons (Manuel Caneri & Adam Roy) and sets off on a quest to find out who had him killed. That person turns out to be Dixie Stampede (Matthew Martin), an evil mastermind with a dastardly plan involving hard drugs and big box retail. Champagne vows to take down Dixie and avenge Rod’s death.
It only gets more outrageous from there, but that’s intentional. Champagne is a send up of Blaxploitation films from the 70s, except with a white lead this time. So Whiploitation? It’s supposed to be over the top. Drollinger does a nice job of balancing the zaniness with well written comedy. It’s ridiculous in the best way possible. The production quality is great as well. At one point, Champagne and a goon get into an insane knockdown fight in a small bathroom. The sequence looks like something out of a mainstream movie with a larger budget. Well, minus the death by plunger.
Drollinger’s performance is the heart of the movie. She moves easily from sex kitten to clown and back again. Without her charisma the movie wouldn’t work. She gets ample support from Martin, the best campy high-kicking villain, and Steven LeMay, who plays Champagne’s ill-fated adopted stepsister, Brandy. LeMay steals every scene with her comedic timing and perfect calves.
If I have to offer any criticism, it would be that Champagne’s runtime is a little long and the leading man, Detective Hammer (Seton Brown), is dull. Aside from that this a dragtastically entertaining movie.
How to Build a Girl is a quirky endearing coming of age movie. Set in mid-90s England, it concentrates on sixteen-year-old outcast Johanna Morrigan (Beanie Feldstein), who is continually bullied at school. While her family is supportive, they are pretty unstable. Plus, the only “people” she can talk to are the pictures of famous figures on her wall that come to life in her fantasies. She’s desperately yearning for something to happen in her life and take her out of this mess. That something arrives in the form of a job at an indie rock magazine.
At first the douchey all-male staff dismisses Johanna, but she manages to win them over with her genuine writing talent. She takes it a step further by reinventing herself as Dolly Wilde, a brash, biting music critic. Armed with a new persona and look (shocking red hair and even louder outfits), Johanna’s star quickly rises. But she soon realizes that she doesn’t necessarily like the girl she has become.
The movie is adapted from Caitlin Moran’s memoir and her life makes for an unusual yet enjoyable story. You root for Johanna to succeed and cringe when she falls on her face. Feldstein is extremely charming in the role. She brings both heart and the humor to her character. I also thought it was great that director Coky Giedroyc wasn’t afraid to show Johanna as a sexual person. She hops from man to man, like a sexual anthropologist. Usually with plus-sized women in movies, their sexuality is downplayed or ignored. Giedroyc puts it all out there in a frank manner.
I liked the overall message of the film: being comfortable in your skin and owning who you are despite what others think. Johanna sees that she has built herself up into someone she doesn’t recognize, so she breaks it all down and rebuilds. She ultimately becomes the person she is most proud of. It’s something anyone can identify with, in your teen years and beyond.
It wasn’t until a few days after seeing Girl that I realized how much it reminded me of the 1994 comedy Muriel’s Wedding. They each feature outrageous young women that don’t fit in with the popular crowd and decide to make themselves over into someone new. Both protagonists have oddball families. Plus, music (ABBA, indie rock) is featured heavily. Feldstein’s Johanna also has a similar affable energy as Toni Collette’s Muriel. The two films would make a great double feature. Maybe at a drive-in.